BIO: Before writing mysteries full time, Betty Webb worked as a journalist and interviewed everyone from U.S. presidents, astronauts who walked on the moon, Nobel Prize winners, the homeless, the dying, and polygamy runaways. Her Lena Jones mystery novels (Desert Noir, Desert Wives, Desert Shadows, Desert Run, and Desert Cut) are based on stories she covered as a reporter. Her humorous The Anteater of Death, the first of a series, is based on her volunteer work at the Phoenix Zoo. Betty is a member of the National Federation of Press Women, Mystery Writers of America, and the American Association of Zoo Keepers.
Because Betty’s two series are so different, she has two web sites:
Visit the dark Lena Jones books.
Visit the humorous zoo mysteries.
What is your current project? Tell us about it.
I’m finishing up Desert Lost, which is the 6th Lena Jones mystery novel. Desert Lost, which will be released in Fall/Winter 2009, continues the story I began in 2002’s Desert Wives: Polygamy Can Be Murder. This time, I delve into what happens to a polygamy compound’s “surplus” boys. After all, if one man can have 10 wives, that means 9 men can have none. The polygamy compounds deal ruthlessly with these “surplus” boys, so ruthlessly that they have now been dubbed “Arizona’s Lost Boys”. As soon as Desert Lost is finished, I’ll write the next Gunn Zoo mystery, The Koala of Death. In contrast to the very dark Lena Jones mysteries, the zoo novels are funny (give or take a dead body or two). Writing them gives me a nice breather (and giggle) as I do my research for the next Lena Jones mystery.
Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head?
I’d been writing professionally most of my adult life, beginning as a copywriter in the big ad agencies in Los Angeles and New York, and later as a full-time journalist for a daily newspaper. Along the way, I also had two plays produced, which was fun, but my real dream was to be a mystery novelist. When my agent called and told me she’d sold Desert Noir, the first Lena Jones mystery, I screamed so loud everyone in the newsroom thought somebody had died!
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.
As a full-time journalist who often had to write three articles per day, I don’t believe in writers block. If I’d ever gone to my editor crying “writers block”, I’d have been fired on the spot. That’s why journalism makes a wonderful training ground for a novelist – journalists simply aren’t allowed to think like that. As the old saying goes, “Writers write. Whether they feel like it or not.”
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
Since I’d had already been writing professionally for years, I knew pretty much what not to do, such as to NEVER argue with editors, and NEVER to make excuses when an article doesn’t “work.” The same holds true for fiction writing. Just because we fall in love with our prose doesn’t mean that love will transfer to the reader. If a manuscript doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work. Aspiring writers must learn to let those unsuccessful manuscripts go and move on to a book that does work.
What’s the best or worst advice (or both) you’ve heard on writing/publication?
The worst advice I ever heard was “Self-publish your manuscript first, then you’ll have an actual book to present to a traditional publishing house.” That’s damaging advice because it’s almost always wrong. Once a book has been self-published, a traditional publishing house will avoid it, because at that point the publisher can only buy second edition rights (the author published the first edition). As my own publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, once said in a letter to unpublished authors, “A book can only be a virgin once.” This is why a self-published book can a big legal hang-up for traditional publishing houses, who don’t want to bother printing second editions by unknown writers.
The only exceptions have been with self-published books which have already sold in the tens of thousands (but don’t be surprised when, to back up those big sales claims, the traditional publishing house asks to see your tax returns). Another thing aspiring writers should be aware of is that most agents won’t take on a self-published writer, either. If your cover letter to an agent says you’ve self-published, don’t expect to hear back from that agent.
What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?
All my mystery novels, even my new humorous mystery, The Anteater of Death, have their roots in articles I wrote for the newspaper. But I change things a lot, including settings, motives, methods, names, descriptions of characters, etc.
Newspaper stories about crimes being committed aren’t the only areas in the paper for ideas, though. Obits work, the Feature page works, even the comics! In my writing workshop, “Getting Five Ideas for Novels Per Day, Every Day,” I teach students how to do just that. For instance, read the letters to Dear Abby — but don’t read Abby’s answer. The idea for a novel (or character) comes from the plight of the poor wretch who wrote the letter; if you read Abby’s answer, it might supplant out your own more creative answer.
Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.
My husband and I frequently get “the look” when we’re dining out, because we’re always talking about great ways to kill people and not get caught. As a writer, I’m expected to always be running off at the mouth like that, but he’s a psychologist and should know better!
Is there a particularly difficult setback that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share? Or have you ever been at the point where considered quitting writing altogether?
As soon as I read the first draft of each of my books I consider quitting forever. My first drafts always stink. They’re disorganized, the language is atrocious, the MS is full of typos, the dialogue is stiff, too many names start with the same letter (a BIG no-no!), the plot doesn’t make sense, everyone is always just sitting stationary in a room yakking — and I hate every character in the book. My desire to quit writing forever goes away, though, when I start fixing that loathsome first draft. The desire to quit lessens even further as I gallop along through my third and fourth drafts. These days, I’ve become very superstitious about lousy first drafts; I’m beginning to believe that the worse a first draft is, the better the book will be at the end of the fifth draft. That’s certainly held true for me. So go ahead and write 200 pages of slop, then fix the darned thing. Remember — you can fix a badly written page, but you can’t fix a blank page.
With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if you were beginning this writing journey today?
Write at least two hours every single day – no excuses. My own writing schedule: While still employed as a full time journalist, I got up at 4 a.m. and wrote until 8 a.m., when it was time to go to work. Once there, I wrote for a minimum of eight hours, five days (sometimes six) per week. I also wrote on my own books from six to eight hours every Saturday and Sunday – so that worked out to be a minimum of 32 hours work on my novels every week, while fully employed. If you can’t write at least two hours every single day, you might want to rethink your desire to write books. Just like building cars or digging ditches, writing is hard, hard, hard work. Only the book signings are fun.
What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?
As life changes, I change.
And as I change, my writing (and my reading taste) changes. Particular writers whose books and/or whose generous advice have changed me include David Morrell (a wonderful teacher and a truly nice person), Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Sue Grafton, Laurie King, J. A. Jance (BIG kudos to Judy!), Walter Stegner, Walker Percy, and the warm and witty books about a not-too-holy minister named Bebb written by Frederick Buechner (readers unfamiliar with him should start with Lion Country). All of these writers feature likable protagonists who face off against great evil, get hurt, but triumph in the end. That’s how I see life, too.
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?
Desert Wives: Polygamy Can Be Murder. That book (written as a straight-ahead mystery novel) and the outrage it elicited from folks all over the U.S., helped force a change in Arizona’s polygamy law. The book was used by several Arizona law-makers who had for years tried to get people to stop looking the other way when girls as young as 12 were forced into plural “marriages” to elderly men (there are no actual marriages; the girls are merely concubines who are traded back and forth from man to man).
Chief among the politicians who helped me were Arizona state senator Linda Binder, who used the book to champion the cause. Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano also helped by reading the original manuscript and pointing out a couple of areas I hadn’t addressed, but probably should (after her advice, I did).
Dean Koontz recently shared his take on the concept of “the writer’s sacred duty.” What comes to your mind at the mention of “the writer’s sacred duty?”
For me, the sacred duty of each writer is to tell the truth. As a journalist (although I write mysteries full time now, I still consider myself a journalist), when I see “legal” outrages committed against the helpless, mainly children, abused women, and the elderly, I go nuts. When no one does anything about these “legal” outrages (such as polygamy, certain types of child abuse, the warehousing of the elderly, the abuse of eminent domain), I try to strip away all the prettified “legal” jargon and tell the truth about what’s really going on. This journalistic technique is especially effective in mystery novels.
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
The mergers of so many publishers and the closing of so many independent bookstores have made life even harder for aspiring authors. The final kick in the head was the closing of so many newspapers – including the daily I used to work for!
Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?
My first dream has already accomplished when, after the release of Desert Wives: Polygamy Can Be Murder, the Arizona legislature finally enacted a law against polygamy. Hopefully, they’ll one day enforce that law. My new dream is that the horrific child abuse I write about in Desert Cut will end. Forever. Everywhere. It’s time we stop excusing the horrors committed against children.
What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?
Since I’m in the midst of writing the first draft of Desert Lost right now, I can’t think of a “favorite” because I’m in hell. Least favorite part of being a writer? All that hard work sucks.
How has your unique life journey prepared you to be an author? What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?
I was an only child living on a cotton farm way out in the back of beyond, and my only friends were books. As early as the age of eight, I knew I was going to be a writer, so I started working towards this dream by drawing and writing comic strips. Eventually I found those too limiting, so I wrote my first novel at the age of 14.
Oddly enough, that 200-page novel (unpublished) was about a horse, titled Desert Mane. I say “oddly” because my best-selling Lena Jones mystery novels always have the word Desert in the title (and there’s usually a horse somewhere in these Arizona-set books). I never made the connection until, addressing a reader’s group about a year ago, a member of the audience asked me for the title of the book I’d written at 14. She was the person who pointed out the “coincidence.” I was stunned.
Describe your special or favorite writing spot or send a picture if you’d like.
My den. With my cats & dogs all cuddled up around me, jazz drifting from the CD player in the next room.
What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?
Control of language. When I first began writing, I thought I putting the image in my head down on the page. I wasn’t. It took years before my language began to match my ideas, and I’m still working on improving that skill. A good idea isn’t enough; the execution of the idea has to be even better.
What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
Pray. And I’m not kidding.
Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?
I still get up at 4 a.m. every day, slip on my sweats, stagger into the den, and turn on the computer. While the computer is warming up, I trudge to the kitchen and make a huge pot of coffee, then go back to the computer and start writing – generally, having no idea what I’ll be writing. About an hour later, I begin to wake up (I’ve been writing pretty much in my sleep for at least that long), go get my now-brewed coffee, and resume writing. Most of the time, I’m not even aware of what I’m writing until around 10 a.m. This is probably why my first drafts are so lousy. But hey, if it works out in the end, it works. Painful, though.
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
As the ideas for a book start coming to me, I make a detailed outline of every single chapter of the planned novel. Characters, arc of action, settings (I firmly believe in alternating indoor and outdoor settings), etc. Once the outline is finished – it usually takes me a couple of weeks — I begin the actual writing. Around Chapter 3, I throw the outline out because it no longer matches what I’ve decided to do. And I keep changing my mind about the “shape” of the book (and even whodunit) all the way through the first draft. Goofy as this sounds, I repeat the same ridiculous process every single time. I think the outline makes me feel secure, that if no ideas come to me, all I have to do is check the outline… but that seldom happens. My unconscious mind always seems to come up with better ideas than my conscious mind.
What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?
Whenever a soggy middle dares raise its ugly head, I kill someone else. Shoot, stab, whatever. As to the hard part, remember what I wrote about my sloppy first drafts. Those things remain my biggest problem, but I haven’t yet figured out how to write a book without writing a first draft. (And yes, I’ve tried writing “tight” first drafts, but then the entire book gets stiff and can’t be fixed! There’s just something so organic about slop.)
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response? Please share.
I received a lot of very emotional letters (and a few death threats from polygamists) after Desert Wives was published. What I didn’t expect were the emotional letters I received upon the publication of The Anteater of Death, a humorous, non-“issue” mystery that takes place in a zoo and stars a zookeeper protagonist. The book is just a funny little thing, but it does have an eccentric anteater named Lucy, along with several other eccentric animals (just like the ones I know at the Phoenix Zoo, where I volunteer). One woman wrote me that her husband of many years had died the week before, and reading The Anteater of Death helped her get through the nights. Her comment really shook me up because it made me remember a similar time when I was in my early twenties and going through a rough patch; that’s when I discovered Agatha Christie. Good ol’ Agatha pulled me through, too.
Have you had a particularly memorable peer honor? Please share.
David Morrell blurbed Desert Cut, my current Lena Jones book, by saying “Mysteries don’t get more hard-hitting than this. Betty Webb is a first-rate investigative journalist who has taken on one of the most controversial topics I can imagine. Fiction and reality intersect in a devastating way.” He emailed me that after reading the manuscript, he was so impressed that he gave it to his wife, then to his daughter.
How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?
Although Poisoned Pen Press markets my books brilliantly, I probably spend almost as many hours marketing as I do actually writing. For this, I use everything possible: emails, press releases, phone calls to bookstores, and I even take out ads in Mystery Scene Magazine. And of course I network, network, network. I belong to several professional and social groups, ranging all the way from writers’ and journalists’ organizations to zoo associations and church groups. Another marketing arm for me are the Webbs, a large, spread-out clan only to happy to sing my praises to their neighbors and towns.
Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?
There’s a big difference in “planning to write” and actually sitting down to write. Stop planning and start writing.